On Tobi Haslett’s review of the new biography of Diana Trilling in the 29 March edition of The New Yorker

While struggling late into the night to put the final touches on a book review, I decided to peruse the latest New Yorker in hopes that it would prove a more intellectually nutritious break from writing than my usual impulse to scroll Twitter looking for the controversy du jour. I stumbled upon Tobi Haslett’s remarkable essay on Diana Trilling, “A Woman Under the Influence.” Coincidentally, I have been reading this week Lionel Trilling’s most famous book, The Liberal Imagination, for an essay I am writing. (I’m not done with the book yet, but for what it’s worth I found his Sincerity and Authenticity a better read.) When I was getting my MA, we read a Lionel Trilling essay in my literary theory seminar, and my esteemed professor stated that Trilling had fallen somewhat out of favor. That was seven years ago, and I’ve noticed in the past few months a slow uptick in essays on the New York Intellectuals, particularly Hannah Arendt. (I will leave my embryonic suspicions as to why that is unstated.) An essay on Diana Trilling is overdue, and Haslett fills that space admirably. What most astonished me, but probably shouldn’t have, is how much Diana downplayed her own career to support Lionel’s.

To be clear, I was not astonished by the bald fact of midcentury sexual politics couched in their relationship; I was already vaguely aware that Diana was in Lionel’s shadow for reasons that were likely not due to his (or her) merit. Rather, what surprised is how greatly she contributed to his success. Haslett quotes Diana: “Lionel taught me to think; I taught him to write.” Her second clause is quite literal: Diana would edit and revise Lionel’s prose with ruthlessness, and his thank you was to acknowledge her work in the preface to his first book and then destroy the pages she had edited.

Haslett’s essay is putatively a review of Natalie Robins’ new biography, The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling, but as with most New Yorker reviews, the occasion of reviewing a book becomes an opportunity for the reviewer to offer their own consideration of the subject. (That is not a bad thing – I rather like it and am perhaps even envious.) In this instance, Haslett gives us a compact but withering portrait of Diana Trilling – withering not because of her conflicted thoughts on politics and feminism, but  because Haslett’s account of Diana’s backseat position to her illustrious husband pinches our sensibilities as it must have suffocated her. Diana Trilling was one of the first women, perhaps, to understand that the personal is political: “Politics, for her, was more than a test of principles; political questions drilled deep into her intimate life, smashing alliances and releasing caustic resentments.” (Incidentally, I’ve always rather appreciated how brutal Diana and Mary McCarthy were to Lillian Hellman.) Yet she was skeptic, even dismissive of second-wave feminism and women’s liberation: “She spent much of her adult life swatting down the claims of women’s liberation with such haughty, willful intolerance that one discerns a note of fear: fear of her own discontent, of her own unconsciousness, of the wrathful righteousness of a new movement that tilted against and exposed all that the patriarchy was happy to leave unsaid.” If we see her sometimes troubled marriage to Lionel behind all this, Haslett is quick to let us know we are right: “It’s easy, perhaps even just, to muster compassion for a woman placed so squarely in the shadow of her husband that she refuses to dwell on her humiliations.”

Part of the reason that I am reading The Liberal Imagination right now, apart from my belief that one should occasionally pick up a once-celebrated book from time to time in order to learn and even perhaps appreciate, is that I am working on an essay that explores the limits of liberal politics and discourse. Lionel Trilling’s defense of liberalism may have seemed triumphant in 1950 when the book was published; as he famously wrote, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” It is easy, perhaps, to mock Lionel’s assertion from our vantage point: we know, of course, that William F. Buckley, Jr.’s first book was a year away, and he would roll out the National Review in 1955. Yes, Lionel Trilling incorrectly predicted liberalism’s dominance, but it would take thirty years for Buckley’s movement to bear fruit with the election of Ronald Reagan, and even until recently it was still possible for a certain class of elites to hold a comfortable faith in liberalism not all that distant from Lionel’s thought. Yet my suspicion is that liberalism already had a canker in the rosebush even as Lionel Trilling was penning those triumphant words. Haslett’s consideration of how Diana Trilling was eclipsed by her husband is not only a specific indication of the limits of Lionel’s liberal perspective, but a pause-giving reminder of the personal cost paid by so many remarkable women under the banner of purported egalitarian thought.

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